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Role players hold key to Giants' success

BY SCOTT HUNT - shunt@chronicle-tribune.com

 Markeisha Jackson admitted she never thought about playing college basketball growing up. It never crossed her mind until Lawrence Jordan arrived nearly two years ago and became head coach of the Marion girls’ basketball program.

“The first day he took over he told us his main goal was to get us into college as a coach,” Jackson said Thursday after the Giants wrapped up practice for today’s Columbia City Regional. “I am more of a defensive player so I didn’t see myself going to college to play basketball. I went on a visit, didn’t really like it at first, but I talked to my mom and talked to my coach and I decided that’s what I wanted to do.”

Jackson is one of two Marion girls now signed to play at Glen Oaks Community College in Centerville, Michigan, next season. Jackson was joined by her senior teammate Ayana Harvey, who signed earlier this week.

Looking through the season statistics for the Giants doesn’t begin to tell the story of what Jackson, Harvey and junior point guard Ellie Vermilion provide for Jordan on a nightly basis. And he’s certain Marion wouldn’t be playing in its second consecutive regional without the contributions of those three along with sophomore Olivia Aguilar. 

“She’s the consummate team player, her and Ayana,” Jordan said of Jackson. “I just told the three girls before practice started (on Thursday), RaShaya (Kyle) and Jazmyn (Turner) get all the credit but without you three we wouldn’t win. We’re way more than that.

“What Ayana, Markeisha and Ellie do, they do intangibles, things that don’t show up in the scorebook or the scoreboard,” he continued. “But if we don’t have those things we wouldn’t win. I let Markeisha, Ayana and Ellie know that the things that they’re doing are really important to our success. ... We’re about our six.”

Six as is six players deep in most games.

Because of low numbers to start the season, and several girls not yet ready to play varsity basketball, Jordan has been reliant on his six girls to get the job done.

And 21 times in 25 games, the Giants have done just that. Turner (17.4 ppg, 8.5 rebounds) and Kyle (16 ppg, 10.5 rpg) are responsible for inflicting a lot of damage on opponents, but Vermilion (9.4 ppg, 4.4 rpg), Harvey and Jackson have been the glue players for Jordan.   

Marion will need that same type of performance today to win the program’s first regional championship since 1986. The Giants open up play at noon against West Noble (18-5) with the winner moving into the championship game to face either first game winner New Castle (16-9) or Angola (20-6).

Jordan has watched a lot of film this week on West Noble, but winning the regional is as much about the Giants doing what they’re capable of as it is about the opponent.

“They play hard. They play well together, but I’m going to be honest, I don’t think they play the same schedule we do,” Jordan confidently stated. “But we’re not taking anybody lightly. I was extremely pleased with our defense at the Norwell sectional. Out of our 12 quarters I think there were 10 quarters where we gave up 10 points or less. When your doing that, that’s great defense and defense wins championships. We’re going to bank on that. Every thing starts with defense and rebounding with the Lady Giants.”

Playing defense is a team endeavor for the Giants, but it normally starts with Jackson’s, slender and athletic 5-foot-6 frame. She led the charge in defending Bellmont senior Grace Hunter, a 20-plus per game scorer heading for Northern Illinois, in the Giants 46-44 win over the 3A No. 3 Squaws in the sectional championship Monday. Hunter finished with a game-high 18 points but hit just 2-of-9 field goal attempts in the second half as Marion rallied back from a 27-19 halftime deficit. 

Jackson averages 2.3 points per game, takes fewer than five shots, but her defensive prowess is exactly what has given her an opportunity to continue her career at Glen Oaks.  

“I said Markeisha there’s a lot of colleges out here that you fail to realize will take you as a defensive stopper, as a defensive specialist,” Jordan said.

He started sending letters to programs about Jackson and Harvey, along with Jazmyn Turner. Jordan got requests from film from a few and that drew some to Marion to watch the Giants play.  

“They seen her energy and her effort and they loved her,” Jordan said. “With Markeisha her shot is fine, she doesn’t keep her (legs quiet) and that effects her shot. When she gets to junior college she’ll get a lot more one-on-one instruction and she’ll be able to knock that 15-foot jumper down. ... She listens, she processes everything and she’s very coachable.” 

Harvey’s game was much more refined when Jordan took over. She has a feathery touch with her left hand that goes well with nimble feet and deceptive quickness around the basket. Harvey often benefits and takes advantage of one-on-situations created by all the attention paid to Kyle and Turner and she averages nearly seven points and five rebounds.

“I tell all the coaches that she is probably the most fundamentally sound post player that I have,” Jordan said of Harvey. “Somebody had been working with her and she listens to what I say, too. The big thing with Ayana was she transformed her body, she lost a lot of weight from last year and it’s easier for her to move around. She listens and she works her butt off.”

Jordan watched the Bellmont film Tuesday and took specific note of Harvey’s play in the post. Several times all Bellmont had good blockouts before Harvey outworked the Squaws to either get a rebound or keep the Giants with possession.

“Three or four times what Ayana did was put her arm up (spun) around and went and got it,” Jordan said. “That’s all effort, you can’t teach that. Either you want to do it or you don’t.” Jordan’s no-nonsense coaching style was an adjustment for all the girls, but he quickly started earning their trust that his top priority was helping them develop as people and players. He’s also imparted a good deal of toughness in his first two years. 

“Tight rope, real tight,” said Harvey in describing Jordan’s style. “It’s real strong but it’s just tough love. That’s what I like. I like somebody to push me with everything I do. I don’t like anybody to take it easy on me.

“He’s always pushed me, he really kept my mind straight with just basketball, life, everything,” she added. When he said he was going to help me out, I did what I was supposed to do and that’s what he did.” 

Coaching is a relationship business, and those relationships are often more important than the Xs and Os. After Jackson signed her letter of intent, Jordan said it was his proudest moment as coach at Marion. That pride grew with Harvey’s commitment and more are sure to follow.

Turner, a senior, will begin taking visits after the season and Jordan anticipates an opportunity for her to play anywhere from a high level junior college to potentially a mid-major level in NCAA Division I.

Vermilion’s goal is eventually to become a pediatrician, and Jordan is just starting the process of writing to coaches for his junior point guard. He said he’s focusing on Ivy League and other top academic institutions for Vermilion’s recruitment.

Kyle, also a junior, is already on the radar of several high-level Division I programs around the country and has a seemingly unlimited potential in basketball.

But the next order of business for the Giants and Jordan starts at noon today. It’s the second regional appearance for the group and Jordan believes they’re much better equipped to compete for the title and a spot in the Class 3A final four. 

“We’re focused going in. Were not just happy to be there,” Jordan said. “We’re going there to win it. That’s the difference this year. We’re going there to win it. “